How Stephen Toured Europe & Made It “Home” Again For 40K points & $400 (#40kfaraway)

Frequent Miler's 2019 40K to Far Away Challenge is done! Greg, Nick, and Stephen competed to see who could go farthest with 40,000 points and $400! Click here for contest results and next steps.

I’m still traveling for 40k To Far Away, but my journey is due to end in just a few hours. Greg and Nick have already shared how they used their points and cash, so it’s time for me to account for mine.

a map of the earth with red lines

Over the last two weeks I’ve visited 6 different countries (not including a couple of countries where I had a layover but didn’t leave the airport), spent time in 9 different cities and – hopefully by the end of my journey tonight – will have taken 15 modes of transport.

During that time I traveled more than 13,000 miles and, most importantly, had a great time. I got to see some of Europe’s big cities, went troll-hunting in two different countries, saw my family, came out ahead after visiting a casino and still had plenty left in my budget by the end of the trip.

Even better, I managed to do all this while getting “home”. I say “home” as I don’t have one, but my wife’s been staying with her parents for the past two weeks in Portsmouth VA where we used to live, so I’m counting that as home for this journey. Getting back home wasn’t part of the challenge, but I decided to make it part of my strategy anyway – more on that tomorrow.

Check out the posts below for more about my journey:

Total Spend

I had 40,000 Membership Rewards and $400 to play with. I tried my hardest, but couldn’t find a good redemption for transferring my points to an airline, so I ended up redeeming them for 1.25cpp thanks to having the Schwab Platinum card. That effectively means I got $500 to spend thanks to Membership Rewards plus the original $400 cash balance.

As strange as it might sound, I had a hard time spending all my money even though I traveled for two whole weeks. Unless something goes horribly wrong in the next few hours, I’ll still have a decent amount left in my budget – maybe I should lend that to Nick for his overspend 😉

Here’s a breakdown of my spending by category:

  • Flights – $385.83
  • Coaches – $138.25
  • City buses – $13.07
  • Other Travel – $31.22
  • Rental car – $64.44
  • Lodging – $155.33
  • Food – $127.67
  • Experiences – $38.40
  • Miscellaneous – $17.33
  • Cashback/Rewards Earned – ($89.10)
  • Total $971.54 – $89.10 = $882.44 (Remember that I had $900 to play with, so I was $17.56 under budget)
Free meal on a plane = nothing added to my budget
Free meal on a plane = nothing added to my budget


Here’s what my various flights cost:

  • Newark-Toronto-Madrid-Zurich-Newark: $238.03
    • MAD-YYZ on United
    • YYZ-MAD on Air Canada
    • MAD-ZRH-EWR on Swiss
  • Madrid-Brussels: $37.51
    • Brussels Airlines
  • London-Copenhagen: $47.89
    • Norwegian Air
  • Copenhagen-Madrid: $62.40
    • Norwegian Air
Norwegian Air flight CPH-MAD
Norwegian Air – a more comfortable flight than I’d been expecting


I took several coaches during the course of the trip as they were more economical than flying and also had me arriving in city centers rather than having to take a bus or train from an airport to get into the city.

  • Washington D.C.-Newark: $16.25
  • Brussels-Paris: $10.15
    • Flixbus
  • Paris-London: $15.23
    • Flixbus, included a trip across the English Channel on a DFDS ferry.
  • London-Guildford: $8.64
    • National Express
  • Newark-Atlantic City: $31.00
    • Greyhound
  • Atlantic City-Washington D.C.: $27.00
    • Greyhound
  • Washington D.C.-Richmond: $11.99
    • Greyhound
  • Richmond-Norfolk: $17.99
    • Greyhound
One of the many buses coaches I took during the trip
One of the many buses/coaches I took during the trip

City Buses

  • Newark Penn Station-Newark Airport: $1.60
  • Brussels Airport-Brussels North Station: $3.29
  • Brussels North Station-Boom Markt: $3.29
  • Boom Markt-Brussels North Station: $3.29
  • Newark Airport-Newark Penn Station: $1.60
A 1 hour bus ride for $3.29 Sure!
A 1 hour bus ride for $3.29? Sure!

Other Travel

  • Madrid Metro: $9.24
    • One day travel pass in Zone A
  • Richmond Uber: $12.28
    • I couldn’t face walking another 3.5 miles from the Greyhound station to my accommodation for the night. This was my final night on the trip, so I knew it wasn’t going to cause me to go over budget; if it had occurred earlier in the trip, I’d have sucked it up.
  • Hampton Roads GoPass: $4.50
    • Unlimited travel on public transport in Hampton Roads – using for Norfolk Tide (tram) and Elizabeth River Ferry.
  • Bolt Scooter: $0.70
    • Ride was $5.70, but I got $5 off for using a promo code as it was my first time riding with Bolt.
  • Bolt Scooter: $2.40
    • This ride was also in Richmond, riding from Kuba Kuba restaurant to Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
  • Bolt Scooter: $2.40
    • This ride was from VMFA to the Greyhound station.
Special thanks to Greg for this money-saving tip
Special thanks to Greg for this money-saving tip

Rental Car

  • Rental Car: $40.90
    • Sixt via
  • Parking: $1.47
    • Parking lot by Kronborg Castle
  • Gas: $22.07
A photo to remind myself of where I parked while hunting for trolls in Copenhagen
A photo to remind myself of where I parked while hunting for trolls in Copenhagen


Despite traveling for two weeks, I only paid for accommodation for five of those nights, while another night was spent for free when staying with my parents. Three nights were spent sleeping at airports, with the remaining nights spent on planes or buses on overnight journeys.

  • London: $22.57
    • PubLove @ The Steam Engine, booked through
  • Atlantic City: $59.77
    • Airbnb for two nights
  • Washington D.C.: $35.00
    • HI Washington D.C. Hostel, booked through
  • Richmond: $37.99
    • HI Richmond Hostel, booked through
All of the hostels I stayed at were much nicer than I'd been expecting
All of the hostels I stayed at were much nicer than I’d been expecting


I spent more than Greg and Nick on food for a few reasons. First, I traveled for twice as long, plus I decided to make part of my trip specifically about trying food from every country/city that I visited. They also had access to airport lounges for much of their trip, while I took a lot more journeys by bus and so didn’t have lounge access for much of the trip.

I only ended up getting through about half my wraps and tuna packs though as I did get to take advantage of some Priority Pass lounges and was well-fed when staying with my parents.

  • Toronto: $1.04
    • Tim Horton’s Donut
  • Madrid: $7.14
    • Empanadas
  • Boom: $7.14
    • Curryworst, fries & soda
  • Starbucks: $3.29
    • While waiting several hours in Brussels for my bus to Paris
  • Paris: $10.21
    • Ham baguette and hot chocolate
  • Paris: $2.20
    • Two bottles of water
  • Calais-Dover: $4.87
    • Pot of tea & blueberry muffin on ferry across the English Channel
  • London: $6.56
    • Dinner from Sainsbury’s (grocery store) consisting of Scotch egg, pork pie, chips, fruit & chocolate milkshake. I know, I’m a model of clean eating.
  • London: $4.18
    • Sausage roll and bacon roll from Greggs
  • Guildford: $12.93
    • Tea and scones
  • Helsingør/Copenhagen: $11.27
    • Frikadeller (chicken meatballs) and two Danish pastries
  • Newark: $4.25
    • Egg & sausage bagel from Dunkin’ Donuts
  • Atlantic City: $4.57
    • McDonald’s – Hamburger, McChicken sandwich, fries & soda
  • Atlantic City: $3.00
    • Tip at Fresh Harvest buffet in Hard Rock Casino & Hotel
  • Atlantic City: $1.49
    • Bottle of water
  • Atlantic City: $3.20
    • McDonald’s – 2x McChicken sandwiches & soda
  • Washington D.C.: $9.63
    • Lunch at Bolt Burgers
  • Richmond: $15.98
    • Drinks + tip at Third Street Brewing
  • Richmond: $1.00
    • Potato chips
  • Richmond: $13.72
    • Lunch at Kuba Kuba
Oh, I'm fancy!
Oh, I’m fancy!


Most of my experiences were gained for free, such as walking around cities, going troll-hunting, etc. I did pay for a few things though:

  • Madrid: $2.20
    • Donation for visiting the crypt beneath Catedral de la Almudena
  • Washington D.C.: $31.20
    • Segway tour
  • Washington D.C.: $5.00
    • Tip for the Segway tour guide
Segway tour of Washington D.C. for less than $22 Don't mind if I do
Segway tour of Washington D.C. for less than $22 Don’t mind if I do


I also had a few expenses which didn’t really fit in any of the above categories:

  • Toronto: $5.30
    • Visa
  • Madrid: $10.93
    • Locker for my backpack
  • Brussels or Paris (I forget which): $1.10
    • Restroom
This luggage storage was a life back saver when walking 10 miles around Madrid
This luggage storage was a life back saver when walking 10 miles around Madrid

Cashback/Rewards Earned

Both during the planning and the trip itself, I managed to earn cashback or rewards that added back into my budget in a number of ways. This is similar to how Greg earned 811 Ultimate Rewards for his trip, but on a more lucrative scale.

Here’s a breakdown:

  • 714 Ultimate Rewards (worth $7.14)
    • Earned by paying for the EWR-YYZ-MAD-ZRH-MAD flight with my wife’s Chase Sapphire Reserve. The 714 points can be used as a statement credit, thereby reducing the net cost of the flight by $7.14.
  • 113 Ultimate Rewards (worth $1.13)
    • Same as above, except for my flight with Brussels Airlines from Madrid to Brussels.
  • 144 Ultimate Rewards (worth $1.44)
    • Same as above, but for my flight from London to Copenhagen on Norwegian Air.
  • 187 Ultimate Rewards (worth $1.87)
    • Same as above, but for my Copenhagen to Madrid flight.
  • $0.51 cashback from Discover
    • I paid for my Brussels to Paris travel with Flixbus using PayPal. PayPal was a 5% category for Discover at the time, so I earned $0.51 cashback.
  • $0.76 cashback from Discover
    • Same as above, except this was for the Flixbus from Paris to London.
  • $0.43 cashback from Discover
    • Same as above, except this was for the National Express coach from London to Guildford.
  • $6.77 cashback from American Express
    • I booked my hostel in London through and paid with a gift card bought from Newegg at 30% off thanks to the Amex Offer.
  • $9.36 cashback from American Express
    • Same as above, except this was for a Groupon gift card that I used to pay for the Segway tour.
  • $14.94 cashback from American Express
    • This was for buying an Airbnb gift card from Staples using a 25% back Amex Offer to pay for my accommodation in Atlantic City.
  • $44.75 casino winnings
    • When status matching to Rock Royalty status at Hard Rock Casino & Hotel in Atlantic City, I got $65 of free play. I managed to turn that into $44.75 of winnings thanks to the suggestions of people in the Frequent Miler Insiders group. Special thanks in particular to Sophia who recommended cashing out as I went along – this helped ensure I kept all of my winnings.
Hard Rock Casino & Hotel showing me the money
Hard Rock Casino & Hotel showing me the money

Final Total

So all told, I had $17.56 left in my budget. I splurged a lot on my last couple of days with the Segway tour, burger, beers, Uber, Cuban food, etc., otherwise I’d have had closer to $100 left in my budget – not too shabby!

Other Earnings

I also earned some additional rewards along the way that I haven’t accounted for here.

  • – Three nights of my accommodation were booked through, so I’ll get back 10% in Welcome Rewards for each of those nights which will be worth an extra $9 or so.
  • TopCashback – I booked all three nights of my stays after clicking through from TopCashback. Two of those tracked, so I have $2.44 pending; I should probably raise a claim for the other transaction.
  • TopCashback – I clicked through to Brussels Airlines from TCB as they were offering 1.5% cashback at the time (it’s currently showing as 0%). That should’ve gotten me $0.56 cashback, but it didn’t track and so I’ve raised a claim.
  • Quidco – Quidco is a UK-based cashback site that’s similar to TopCashback in that they pass on 100% of the cashback earned. I still have an account with them from when I lived in the UK and clicked through to National Express and Flixbus from there. (n.b. Flixbus USA is available on some US-based portals, but I wasn’t sure if European transactions would track). I have £0.16 pending for my National Express trip, but the Flixbus transactions never tracked, possibly because of those journeys originating in continental Europe rather than the UK. I might still try raising a claim, although it’d only get me the equivalent of $1.22 in GBP.
  • United – I credited the miles earned from my EWR-YYZ-MAD-ZRH-EWR flight to United and so earned a grand total of 670 MileagePlus miles.
  • Norwegian – I earned a total of 9 CashPoints from my two flights with Norwegian. Those are apparently worth ~$1, so it’s likely they’ll go to waste as I don’t think I’ll end up flying Norwegian again anytime soon and they expire after 48 months.

I think this covers everything, but let me know if you have any questions about my expenditure.

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[…] mind, another option to consider is cashing out Membership Rewards points at a value of 1.25c each. Stephen did that last year and put together a pretty epic vacation (albeit during a time before social distancing and closing of […]

[…] 40,000 points $382.44 Details here […]

Raghu Narayanan

The trip with 40K and $600+ was awesome. The end with your son on your back, priceless!

Raghu Narayanan

wonderful report Stephan, the money goes “further” in ypur wallet

[…] you might have seen from my accounting post yesterday, I redeemed my 40,000 Membership Rewards for 1.25cpp using the Schwab Platinum card. That gave me a […]


How did u get more than $400 to spend?!

[…] Stephen: Spent 40,000 points and $382.44 ($17.56 under budget). Details here. […]


I also enjoyed your trip as I did feel I could replicate it. I’m just a normal person…no business…no manufactured spending…and I don’t have large sums of money to blow on Vacations. I loved your route through Europe. It seemed very reasonable and something I’d do, though I would actually stay at hotels, as I do have certs and points for those as well. I hope I can catch a deal like yours for your round trip to Europe. That was a steal!


Next time I’d like to see a competition where you all have to stay in hotels and fly J or better. Seeing you guys sleep in airports, take long bus rides, and eat lounge food isn’t exactly inspiring.

Ryan del Mundo

Awesome trip Stephen! I was keen to see how you ended up with your budget, only to see you basically came in under! Some may argue you spent more, but like you said, you had extra at the end and spent it. I wonder how cheaply you could have managed had you really wanted to! And props for hitting up Kuba Kuba, I used to love the pork shank there, I’m sure it wasn’t within your $14 lunch budget!

Watching the whole team race around the world, literally, I felt a bit bad that the rules were so strict that we had grown men sleeping on the floors of airports. That said, the competition was on, and you all rose to the occasion! Running far and wide on the cheap sure is a different “value” proposition than the TPG: FLY FIRST CLASS FOR FREE JUST CLICK ON THESE LINKS drivel, where trip reports show every single dish in the First Class cabin. Loved the real-world grit! Trolls! Sunrise breakfasts! South Pacific Yacht Club! That’s real travel, thanks for sharing!

Most of all, I’m motivated to hit the road again and find some great deals and #GoFar!


Stephen will get my vote because he not only didn’t blow past his budget but made it all the way home on that budget. Greg and Nick just went one way.


Stephen, first off, props for complying with the contest rules unlike Nick. I was incredibly disappointed with his decision to blatantly violate the rules even before he left his couch.

That said, I will still say that I am also disappointed with your decisionmaking. The point of this contest was to go “far away.” The rules of the contest didn’t require you to return to the United States. Western Europe is not “far away” from Washington, DC. It’s not particularly far in terms of distance, and it’s not inaccessible to people on the east coast by any stretch of the imagination. The concept of Europe on a shoestring budget is not exotic; thousands of backpackers every year can tell you that. And while I understand that you got a good deal, you wasted money selecting a roundtrip ticket to end your trip in the United States. Why not do something like fly to LYR while you were in Scandinavia and end the contest there? If the answer is that you felt like you didn’t want to do something like that, you shouldn’t have been in this contest to begin with and you should have encouraged Greg to give the Amex mantle to someone else, perhaps even a reader who would have had the time and energy to attempt to achieve the objective of the contest.

You get second by default but Greg is the clear winner here and it’s not even close. Greg, as the publisher of the site, should be disappointed with his competitors for how they played the game, and should think about locating people to compete against him next year who actually care about the rules and want to achieve the objective of the game.


Agreed that Western Europe and East Coast US aren’t aspirational destinations for most of us, but I think that’s exactly the point. Everyone on BA has been so conditioned to think that travel = Maldives or Bora Bora, that a “normal” vacation itinerary is a true out-of-box thinking. Good job Stephen!!!


This trip 10-12 years ago with a weak USD to GBP/Euro. $2~1£ / $1.54~1€ would have had been a totally different trip. a strong USD is a two-edged sword for trade tho).

– this challenge makes me think of backpackers and hippies from the 70s (even tho I was in Elementary school) and backpacking and trains across Europe and jaunts to India.

I can totally relate to the frugality of traveling like this while in college and early married life -before kids. Even sleeping on the beach to save money to Scuba dive in the tropical waters in Asia (sands not very comfortable to sleep the night).

I think I enjoyed the game of it more than the actual grinding out the miles (frugally but youthful wanderlust covers a multitude of discomfort) – I much prefer a nice premium cabin and non-hostel or couch surfing – and staying at 4~5 star properties.

That said my wanderlust is much more satied – but it’s impressive what you guys did with you money and miles.


But even those of us that are older can use a lesson in frugality once in a while! I surely am not intending to sleep in an airport or bus station (nor anywhere else without a proper bed) but I think we could realize that we can do a lot more with our points and $$ if we stretch them sometimes. We try to do a mixture. Some nights a lower cost hotel or apartment (points or cash-wise and some at more luxurious hotels. Some meals we splurge but especially in Europe, we will shop at Sainsbury’s, Aldi’s or Coop and dine in our apartment for lunch or dinner many days. Same with flights. I understand people wanting a lie-flat seat on an overnight but there are such cheap flights to be had lately, especially back from Europe that are not overnight – saves points for the next overnight to have the lie-flat seat or just stretches your points.


That is a lot of travel for very little money. Congrats.

BTW, I am glad that you now know that “hand pies” are empanadas.


I was so into your Europe week and I was rooting for you… and then you came back to the US and basically did a staycation. I was expecting something awesome like a cross country train ride, or flight to the Caribbean or Mexico or hopping across Canada like you did Europe. Gambling in a casino in AC isn’t exactly aspirational. I still have a lot of respect for you going 2 weeks, but I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop and now I’m disappointed.

I’m giving it to Greg for his interesting experiences, meeting people, + sleeping in beds rather than on floors. You’re a solid second and Nick obviously disqualified himself, but I would still probably put him third. I hope to see a rematch next year!

Shae Pepper

Lisa – this is Mrs Stephen – ha! He should’ve done something epic at the end. I told him AC and his second leg was kinda lame


Yes, was thinking Stephen will swing for the fences or something. Like close to polar area.


Don’t be so hard on the lad he made it home to travel another day the others didn’t !!!